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Vice President Biden lifts Florida's high-speed rail hopes

(The following story by Alfonso Chardy and Lesley Clark appeared on the Miami Herald website on June 4, 2009.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Vice President Joe Biden suggested Wednesday that Florida stands a good chance of securing some of the $8 billion the administration has set aside to develop what it calls a ''world-class'' high-speed passenger rail system.

''Florida is in the mix,'' Biden told reporters on a conference call. ``It is still in play.''

Biden outlined two possible Florida routes where high-speed rail could be built and sustained: one from Miami to Tampa via Orlando, the other from Miami to Jacksonville via Orlando.

''They are sustainable, assuming the state wants to get into the game . . . because there's existing systems there and they parallel some of [Interstate] 95,'' Biden said.

His remarks came as governors and transportation officials from 23 states interested in securing high-speed rail dollars met at the White House with Biden and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist didn't make the meeting, but Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos attended. She told Florida lawmakers at a briefing before the White House meeting that state transportation officials are preparing to submit an application for a share of the money.

Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, said she expects Florida to fare well, noting that President Barack Obama and LaHood have mentioned the state as a potential recipient of the funding.

Castor said the state's bid will require a ''unified effort'' to compete with other interested states. She said she has sent letters to the congressional delegation asking for support, noting that the project doesn't require state or local matching dollars.

Kopelousos said the state already owns most of the land that would be required for the project along the proposed 90-mile route between Orlando and Tampa, along Interstate 4.

''We've been looking at doing it, so we're close to being ready,'' she said. The state estimates it could start construction within two years.

But the state faces fierce competition from other states, not the least from California, which has been planning a high-speed line from Los Angeles to San Francisco for years. California voters have already approved $9 billion in bond financing to get the project started.

Florida has sought a high-speed rail system since at least the 1970s. In the 1990s, the state came close to building a $6.3-billion, 200-mph rail line from Miami to Orlando and Tampa. But the project was derailed when then-Gov. Jeb Bush in 1999 refused to spend any additional money on the project.

At the time, bullet-train advocates said a Florida high-speed rail project would compete successfully with regional airlines and Florida's Turnpike.

Members of Florida's congressional delegation Wednesday criticized Tallahassee lawmakers for rejecting funding this spring for Tri-Rail and a proposed commuter rail line in Orlando, saying the move could put federal money in jeopardy.

''I can tell you the rest of the country will clean our clock if we continue to stumble,'' said Rep. John Mica of Orlando, the top Republican on the House Transportation Committee.

The Legislature this spring rejected a controversial rail line in Central Florida and failed to give Tri-Rail a dedicated source of funding, which Mica says makes it more difficult for lawmakers to make the case in Washington that the state needs transportation dollars.

''You can't do it with a straight face when you're giving back federal dollars,'' Mica said.

Biden said the federal government is now accepting applications from the states for slices of the $8 billion, high-speed rail seed money.

The deadline to apply is June 17, and the administration hopes to award money to ''shovel-ready projects'' later in the summer, Biden said.

A second round of applications would be accepted later for additional money for projects that are not ready to be built.

The administration has identified $13 billion in federal funds, $8 billion in the recently enacted stimulus legislation and $5 billion requested in the federal budget -- to ''jump-start'' a nationwide high-speed rail system.

Biden said he wants the U.S. system to be comparable to high-speed rail in Europe. He noted that LaHood had recently visited France and Spain to check out their high-speed rail networks.

''We're going to start building a high-speed rail system that will loosen the congestion suffocating our highways and skyways and make travel in this country leaner, meaner and a whole lot cleaner,'' he said.

Biden -- who as a senator was an enthusiastic commuter aboard Amtrak from his home state, Delaware, to Washington, D.C. -- told the gathering at the White House that he believes a high-speed rail system is ``a no-brainer.

''This is how the interstate highway system started, folks,'' he said. 'It wasn't like the Lord on the eighth day said -- `Boom! There's the interstate highway system.' ''

Thursday, June 4, 2009

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